The Cancer House by Arthur B Reeve

Story type: Literature

“You’ve heard of such things as cancer houses, I suppose, Professor Kennedy?”

It was early in the morning and Craig’s client, Myra Moreton, as she introduced herself, had been waiting at the laboratory door in a state of great agitation as we came up. Just because her beautiful face was pale and haggard with worry, she was a pathetic figure, as she stood there, dressed in deep mourning, the tears standing in her eyes merely because we were a little later than usual.

“Well,” she hurried on as she dropped into a chair, “that is what they are calling that big house of ours at Norwood–a cancer house, if there is such a thing.”

Clearly, Myra Moreton was a victim of nervous prostration. She had asked the question with a hectic eagerness, yet had not waited for an answer.

“Oh,” she exclaimed, “you do not, you cannot know what it means to have something like this constantly hanging over you. Think of it–five of us have died in less than five years. It haunts me. Who next. That is all I can think about. Who next?”

Her first agitation had been succeeded by a calmness of despair, almost of fatalism, which was worse for her than letting loose her pent-up emotions.

I had heard of cases of people in whom there was no record of hereditary predisposition to cancer, people apparently in perfect health, who had moved into houses where cancer patients had lived and died and had themselves developed the disease. Though I had, of course, never even remotely experienced such a feeling as she described, I could well fancy what it must be to her.

Kennedy watched her sympathetically. “But why do you come to me?” he asked gently. “Don’t you think a cancer specialist would be more likely to help you?”

“A specialist?” she repeated with a peculiar hopelessness. “Professor Kennedy, five years ago, when my Uncle Frank was attacked by cancer, father was so foolish as to persuade him to consult a specialist whose advertisement he saw in the papers, a Dr. Adam Loeb on Forty-second Street here in New York. Specialist! Oh, I’m worried sick every time I have a sore or anything like this on my neck or anywhere else.”

She had worked herself from her unnatural calm almost into a state of hysterics as she displayed a little sore on her delicate white throat.

“That?” reassured Kennedy. “Oh, that may be nothing but a little boil. But this Dr. Loeb–he must be a quack. No doctor who advertises–“

“Perhaps,” she interrupted. “That is what Dr. Goode out at Norwood tells me. But father has faith in him, even has him at the house sometimes. I cannot bear the sight of him. Since I first saw him my uncle, his wife, another aunt, my cousin have died, and then, last week, my–my mother.”

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Her voice broke, but with a great effort she managed to get herself together. “Now I–I fear that my father may go next. Perhaps it will strike me–or my brother, Lionel–who can tell? Think of it–the whole family wiped out by this terrible thing. Can it be natural, I ask myself? Is there not something back of it?”

“Who is this Dr. Loeb?” asked Kennedy, more for the purpose of aiding her in giving vent to her feelings than anything else.

“He is a New York doctor,” she reiterated. “I believe he claims to have a sure cure for cancer, by the use of radium and such means. My father has absolute confidence in him–visits him at his office and, as I told you, even has him at Norwood. In fact they are quite friendly. So was Lionel until lately.”

“What happened to shake your brother’s faith?” asked Craig.

“Nothing, I imagine, except that Lionel began thinking it over after someone told him about cancer houses. You must admit yourself that it is–at least strange. I wish you could see Lionel. He knows more about it than I do. Or Dr. Goode. I think he has made some kind of test. He could tell you much better than I can all the strange history. But they don’t agree–Lionel and Gail. Oh–it is more than I can stand. What shall I–“

She had fainted. In an instant I was at her side, helping Kennedy bring her around.

“There, there,” soothed Kennedy several minutes later as her deep eyes looked at him appealingly. “Perhaps, after all, there may be something I can do. If I should go out to Norwood with you as soon as you feel better, wouldn’t that be all right?”

“Oh–will you?” she cried, overjoyed. “If you would–how could I ever thank you? I feel better. No–don’t stop me. I’ve been living on nerve. I can do more. Please–let me telephone Lionel that we are coming.”

Kennedy humored her, although I knew he had several important investigations going on at the time. It was scarcely an hour before we were on the train and in the early forenoon we were met by her brother at the station in a light car.

Through the beautiful streets of the quaint old Connecticut town we rode until at last we stopped before a great stone house which had been the Moreton mansion for several generations.

It was a double house, a gloomy sort of place, surrounded by fir trees, damp and suggestive of decay. I could not help feeling that if ever there were a house about which I could associate the story which Myra had poured forth, this was it. Somehow, to me at least, it had all the mystery of being haunted.

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Darius Moreton, her father, happened to be at home to lunch when we arrived. He was a man past middle age. Like his father and grandfather, he was a manufacturer of optical goods and had increased the business very well. But, like many successful business men, he was one of those who are very positive, with whom one cannot argue.

Myra introduced Kennedy as interested in cause and treatment of cancer, and especially in the tracing down of a definite case of a “cancer house.”

“No,” he shook his head grimly, “I’m afraid it is heredity. My friend, Dr. Loeb, is the only one who understands it. I have the most absolute confidence in him.”

He said it in a way that seemed to discourage all argument. Kennedy did not antagonize him by disagreeing, but turned to Lionel, who was a rather interesting type of young man. Son of Darius Moreton by his first wife, Lionel had gone to the scientific school as had his father and, graduating, had taken up the business of the Moreton family as a matter of course.

Myra seemed overcome by the journey to the city to see Kennedy and, after a light luncheon, Lionel undertook to talk to us and show us through the house. It was depressing, almost ghastly, to think of the slow succession of tragedies which these walls had witnessed.

“This is a most unusual case,” commented Craig thoughtfully as Lionel went over briefly the family history. “If it can be authenticated that this is a cancer house, I am sure the medical profession will be interested, for they seem to be divided into two camps on the question.”

“Authenticated?” hastened Lionel. “Well, take the record. First there was my Uncle Frank, who was father’s partner in the factory. He died just about five years ago at the age of fifty-one. That same year his wife, my Aunt Julia, died. She was just forty-eight. Then my other aunt, Fanny, father’s sister, died of cancer of the throat. She was rather older, fifty-four. Not quite two years afterward my cousin, George, son of Uncle Frank, died. He was several years younger than I, twenty-nine. Finally my step-mother died, last week. She was forty-nine. So, I suppose we may be pardoned if, somehow, in spite of the fact, as you say, that many believe that the disease is not contagious or infectious or whatever you call it, we believe that it lurks in the house. Myra and I would get out tomorrow, only father insists that there is nothing in it, says it is all heredity. I don’t know but that that’s worse. That means that there is no escape.”

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We had come down the wide staircase into the library, where we joined Myra, who was resting on a chaise-longue.

“I should like very much to have a talk with Dr. Goode,” suggested Craig.

“By all means,” agreed Myra eagerly. “I’ll go over to his office with you. It is only next door.”

“Then I’ll wait here,” said Lionel, rather curtly, I thought.

I fancied that there was a coolness that amounted to a latent hostility between Lionel and Dr. Goode, and I wondered about it.

Across the sparse lawn that struggled up under the deep shade of the trees stood a smaller, less pretentious house of a much more modern type. That was where Dr. Goode lived.

We crossed with Myra through a break in the hedge between the two houses. As we were about to pass between the two grounds, Kennedy’s foot kicked something that seemed to have rolled down from some rubbish on the boundary line of the two properties, piled up evidently waiting to be carted away.

Craig stooped casually and picked the object up. It was a queer V-shaped little porcelain cone. He gave it a hasty look, then dropped it into his pocket.

Dr. Goode, into whose office Myra led us, was a youngish man, smooth-shaven, the type of the new generation of doctors. He had come to Norwood several years before and had struggled up to a very fair practice.

“Miss Moreton tells me,” began Kennedy after we had been introduced, “that there is a theory that theirs is one of these so-called cancer houses.”

The doctor looked at us keenly. “Yes,” he nodded, “I have heard that theory expressed–and others, too. Of course, I haven’t had a chance to verify it. But I may say that, privately, I am hardly prepared to accept it, yet, as a case of cancer house.”

He was very guarded in his choice of words, but did not succeed in covering up the fact that he had a theory of his own.

I was watching both the young doctor and Myra. She had entered his office in a way that suggested that she was something more than a patient. As I watched them, it did not take one of very keen perception to discover that they were on very intimate terms indeed and thought very highly of each other. A glance at the solitaire on Myra’s finger convinced me. They were engaged.

“You don’t believe it, then?” asked Craig quickly.

The young man hesitated and shrugged his shoulders.

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“You have a theory of your own?” persisted Craig, determined to get an answer.

“I don’t know whether I have or not,” he replied non-committally.

“Is it that you think it possible to produce cancer artificially and purposely?” shot out Craig.

Dr. Goode considered. I wondered whether he had any suspicions of which he would not speak because of professional ethics. Kennedy had fixed his eyes on him sharply and the doctor seemed uneasy under the scrutiny.

“I’ve heard of cases,” he ventured finally, “where X-rays and radium have caused cancerous growths. You know several of the experimenters have lost their lives in that way–martyrs to science.”

I could not help, somehow or other, thinking of Dr. Loeb. Did Dr. Goode refer indirectly to him? Loeb certainly was no martyr to science. He might be a charlatan. But was he a scientific villain?

“That may all be true,” pursued Craig relentlessly, evidently bound to draw the young man out. “But it is, after all, a question of fact, not of opinion.”

Myra was looking at him eagerly now and the doctor saw that she expected him to speak. It was more pressure than he could resist.

“I have long suspected something of the sort,” he remarked in a low, forced tone. “I’ve had samples of the blood of the Moretons examined. In fact I have found that their blood affects the photographic plate through a layer of black paper. You know red blood cells and serum have a distinct power of reducing photo-silver on plates when exposed to certain radiations. In other words, I have found that their blood is, apparently, radioactive!”

Myra looked at him aghast. It was evidently the first time he had said anything about this new suspicion, even to her. The very idea was shocking. Could it be that someone was using these new forces with devilish ingenuity?

“If that’s the case, who would be the most likely person to do such a thing?” shot out Craig.

“I wouldn’t like to say,” he returned, dodging, though we were all thinking of Dr. Loeb.

“But the motive?” demanded Craig. “What motive would there be?”

“Darius Moreton is very intimate with a certain person,” he returned enigmatically. “It is even reported in town that he has left that person a large sum of money in his will in payment for his services, if you call them so, to the family.”

He had evidently not intended to say so much and, although Craig tried in every way, he could not get the doctor to amplify what he had hinted at.

We returned to the Moreton house, Kennedy apparently much impressed by what Dr. Goode had said.

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“If you will permit me,” he asked, “I should like to have a few drops of blood from each of you.”

“Goode tried that,” remarked old Mr. Moreton. “I don’t know that anything came of it. Still, I am not going to refuse, if Myra and Lionel agree.”

Craig had already taken from his pocket a small case containing a hypodermic and some little glass tubes. There seemed to be no valid objection and from each of them he drew off a small quantity of blood. As he worked, I thought I saw what he had in mind. Could there be, I wondered, an X-ray outfit or perhaps radium concealed about the living rooms of the house? First of all, it was necessary to verify Dr. Goode’s observations.

We chatted a few moments, then took leave of Myra Moreton.

“Keep up your courage,” whispered Craig with a look that told her that he had seen the conflict between loyalty to her father and to her lover.

Lionel drove us back to the station in the car alone. Nothing of importance was said by any of us until we had almost reached the station.

“I can see,” he said finally, “that you don’t feel sure that it is a cancer house.”

Kennedy said nothing.

“Well,” he pursued, “I don’t know anything about it, of course. But I do know this much–those doctors are making a good thing out of father and the rest of us.”

The car had pulled up. “I’ve got no use for Loeb,” the young man went on. “Still, I’d rather not that we had trouble with him. I’ll tell you,” he added in a burst of confidence, “he has a little girl who works for him, his secretary, Miss Golder. She comes from Norwood. I should hate to have anything happen to queer her. People used to think Goode was engaged to her before he took that office next to us and got ambitious. Father placed her with Dr. Loeb. If it’s necessary to do anything with him, I wish you’d think whether she couldn’t be kept out of it in some way.”

“I’ll try to do it,” agreed Craig, as we shook hands and climbed on the early afternoon train back to the city.

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